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Path of Freedom: Prison Mindfulness

by Hilary Hart

In America, freedom is a core value, a north star in our collective compass. But this land of the free also has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.1 “More than 2.2 million people—one in every 107 adults—are in prison or jail,” says Fleet Maull, founder of the Prison Mindfulness Institute.2 “We think of ourselves as a caring, compassionate, and charitable society, but we have the most punitive criminal justice system in the world.” How do we make sense of this paradox?

Maull recognizes this as a “shadow” dynamic, a term used by the psychologist Carl Jung to describe the human tendency to reject what we cannot face within ourselves. Most of us understand this pattern on an individual level; it’s natural to turn away from what makes us uncomfortable or to sweep it under the rug. But the same pattern also exists collectively: sociopolitical values and public policies can be seen as extensions of a collective psyche, idealizing what we collectively long for and demonizing what we fear.

The Prison Mindfulness Institute (PMI) asks us to consider alternatives to using our prison system as a place to disregard, forget, and punish, and it helps build those alternatives through a number of initiatives that work not only with prisoners, but with prison system administrators, policy makers, and local communities as well. This multi-dimensional approach encourages and supports the transformation of our prison system from the inside out.

Whether on an individual or collective level, reconciling a shadow dynamic depends upon acknowledging and accepting that which we fear and reject and reintegrating that rejected potential into healthier, more creative endeavors. When it comes to who and what we imprison, Maull points to policies that marginalize and penalize the underserved members of our society.

“The majority of inmates in our prison system come from under-resourced and at-risk communities,” he says. “Through systematic legislation and prosecution, this country has been incarcerating the disowned, undesirable, impoverished, undereducated, mentally ill, and non-white members of our society.

“Mostly poor and undereducated, they’re forced to live in highly toxic surroundings of one kind or another,” he continues, “whether it’s next to waste dumps or in the midst of family chaos and violence driven by drugs and alcohol. These individuals end up in prison often as a result of responding to their situation with the only strategies they’ve known.”

As we imprison specific subgroups of our collective society, we lose a tremendous amount of human potential, says Maull. “There’s a high proportion of very able, smart, talented and often entrepreneurial—if somewhat or more than misguided—individuals in prison,” he explains.

“The loss of these individuals has a devastating impact on neighborhoods and communities that are already under-resourced. And more and more women and mothers are locked up with a cascading impact on their children and families and community at large.” Maull knows firsthand how much potential lies forgotten in our prison system, having served 14½ years on mandatory-minimum drug trafficking charges starting in 1985. While serving his term at the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners, Maull founded two national organizations, Prison Dharma Network (now Prison Mindfulness Institute) in 1989 and the National Prison Hospice Association in 1991.

A committed Buddhist, he continued his meditation practice behind bars, drawing questions and inspiring other prisoners. Soon, he was providing written materials on meditation and Buddhist teachings to a growing network of prisoners eager for something to help make their situation bearable and perhaps even meaningful. Prison Mindfulness Institute (PMI) has expanded its work of providing resources to prisoners. The informal dissemination of books and materials started by Maull in prison is now the “Books Behind Bars” program, which sends thousands of books on meditation and spiritual practice to prisoners and prison libraries annually.

The network of prisoners exchanging support and information via mail is now an online network with more than 2000 members supporting mindfulness-based prison work around the world. But over the years, PMI has also adopted a larger, systemic point of view. Today, PMI refers to its work as “Integral Transformative Justice,” locating itself within the transformative justice movement, which supports alternatives to incarceration and social programs that prevent crime and reduce incarceration rates.

PMI’s “Integral Transformative Justice” model emphasizes the interdependence of personal and societal transformation and works from both ends for change. “Personal transformation is critical to social transformation,” explains Maull. “At the same time, we work with transformative social processes—such as sentencing reform, drug policy reform, and alternatives to incarceration, among others.”

Key to PMI’s personal transformation efforts is the Path of Freedom™ curriculum, developed by Executive Director Kate Crisp, which is an evidence-based program for genuine healing, self-development, and rehabilitation. PMI has trained over 295 Path of Freedom facilitators from all across the United States and several foreign countries, and Path of Freedom programs have now been established in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Australia, Canada, and Sweden.

Foundational to the curriculum is the power of mindfulness meditation, which creates opportunities for individuals to touch into aspects of themselves that are free, empowered, and essentially of value. When offered behind bars, Path of Freedom can help prisoners reclaim their own lost potential within the extremely challenging environment of prison life.

The Path of Freedom mindfulness-based emotional intelligence (MBEI) curriculum is specifically designed to address “criminogenic factors,” says Maull, like antisocial attitudes, values and beliefs, and certain temperaments and personality types strongly associated with criminal behavior and recidivism.3

“Prisoners participating in the curriculum practice pro-social behaviors and develop greater awareness of their own negative attitudes, core beliefs, and self-identities,” he explains. “They learn to manage and even transform negative tendencies through becoming fully accountable and responsible for their choices. People from these under-resourced communities and at-risk populations often embody a deep lack of self-worth,” he continues. “Our society and popular culture drill into us from early childhood on that self-value is external and has only to do with looks, status, and material goods. We are all measured by these things—not by our innate qualities.

“So many start out in these challenged populations with little or no collective reflection of externally derived, much less innate, value. Society tells you that in order to be valued you must have something—money, shoes, cars—anything. But you have nothing, so you mean nothing; you don’t count. Combine this collective situation with the fact that the incarcerated have had an impoverished internal landscape due to growing up in families that are poor, subjected to racial oppression, and often plagued by drug and alcohol addiction, abuse, and violence. When you put these together—the individual backgrounds that are impoverished and chaotic with the collective message of worthlessness—it’s a deadly combination.”

And layered on top of these conditioned beliefs internalized from family or culture are the attitudes and feelings imposed by the justice system itself. “From the moment of their arrest and booking, prisoners are buried under a mountain of guilt, shame, and demonization heaped upon them, often unconsciously, by police, prosecutors, judges, the media, politicians, correctional staff, and society,” says Maull. “Under all this, one is just trying to survive, often shielding oneself with bitterness, anger, and hopelessness. This makes it very difficult for most prisoners to access and feel the genuine remorse and regret necessary for change and healing.”

To ply through the layers of conditioning to something more essential, Path of Freedom classes utilize a variety of methods, from traditional education on topics like unhealthy relationship patterns and the neurobiological basis of fear-based, reactive behavior to formal sitting meditation. Activities and exercises encourage self-reflection and always include a group-process component to aid in the development of trust, pro-social communication, and relationship skills. Ultimately, they help prisoners understand themselves more fully and take responsibility for their own lives.

“Many of the prisoners carry misconceptions about forgiveness,” says Maull, highlighting one of the curriculum’s topics. “Most have some idea that if you talk about forgiving others, it’s letting them off the hook or absolving them of responsibility. It’s the same with forgiving themselves—it’s thought of as letting themselves off the hook.”

“As with many of the topics, with forgiveness it’s about letting go and choosing to act in one’s own enlightened self-interest. And these are people carrying blame and rage about terrible situations—an uncle who raped their sister, or a father who killed their mother—and we are asking them to see that when they are carrying around this anger and bitterness, they suffer from it. They see that in all likelihood the other person doesn’t give it a second thought.

“We get them to ask, ‘Does it make sense to give free rent to that person in my head? To give them a leather couch and big screen TV in my head?’ They see that, no, it’s not in their best interest to hang on to that anger or blame, and they can work on letting it go and moving forward in life.” In 2012, one prisoner described this revelation in class: “I’ve learned after 45 years that no matter who else is around, nothing is going to be okay if I’m not okay in myself.” Another said simply, “If you don’t let it go, it affects you more in the long run.”

Maull describes a three-step process to forgiveness and healing that runs through much of their work: “First, it’s about the individual taking full responsibility for what’s going on in his or her head and then letting go,” he says. “Second, it’s about that individual seeing that when he, she or others act in ways that cause harm, those actions are coming out of a place of suffering to begin with. This insight allows them to not take it so personally. With this understanding, there is the space and possibility for compassion. They see that we have this suffering in ourselves and others have it in them, so there could be a possibility for empathy or compassion to arise.

“Lastly, the third step includes the possibility for reconciliation. However, this may not happen or even be appropriate. We can completely let go of our enmity or bitterness toward someone and move on, even without re-engaging any kind of relationship or communication with that person.” The challenge is to help prisoners develop a new sense of responsibility and freedom that supports better decision-making.

“Most of the people in prison are there because they’ve made bad choices,” says Maull. “We want them to take responsibility for their choices, and we give them the tools to make better choices. We call this ‘radical responsibility,’ seeing that choosing 100 percent responsibility—in the sense of ownership, not blame—for our own circumstances and choices is the real door to personal freedom and success. We work to try to help individuals understand that much of their decision-making is coming out of conditioning they’ve inherited and are still carrying.

“Through meditation, prisoners come to recognize their conditioning as their own and take responsibility for it, and ultimately step outside of it so their thoughts and actions can come from a space of freedom. For some it’s like a light bulb going off, for others it takes time. But they all get it eventually. You see, most of them have been in and out of jail many times. They know through personal experience that just because the jail door opens, it doesn’t mean their life is going to change. They understand that this issue of real freedom is not about being locked up or not.”

Not surprisingly, the same mindfulness-based emotional intelligence training that helps release prisoners from conditioned psychological and behavioral patterns also works for prison staff and administrators. “In the prison culture, staff and prisoners are locked into a reflective shadow cycle of adversarial relationship,” says Maull. “In this dynamic, each sees the other as persecutor. Each feels he or she is a victim. Each is looking to be rescued in some way. Prisoners see correctional officers as representatives of societal oppression. Correctional officers see themselves as law enforcement professionals, doing a tough, dangerous, and often under-appreciated job, protecting society from dangerous criminals. Both sides can be extremely polarized, seeing the other as the enemy.

“Sometimes it takes a long time for the staff to buy in to a different possibility,” Maull continues. “They have a bigger hill to climb because there’s so much reinforcement of the ‘rightness’ of their point of view. They are the ‘good’ guys and the prisoners are the ‘thugs.’

“But early on with this kind of training, they start having experiences: for example, when a correctional officer is working with an aggressive or difficult prisoner and then approaches that person in a different way—well, they get a different person. So they begin to see the self-created aspect of the toxicity of the world. This overlay of toxicity they generate is killing them and they know it.

“We can present staff with new skills that help manage stress, develop greater resilience, reduce the toxicity in their relationships and allow them to do their job with more dignity. What we hope staff and administrators will recognize is just how much it is costing them to participate in that cycle of polarized shadow dynamics and toxicity. We hope they will begin to see what it costs them emotionally, physically, and spiritually to armor themselves with an aggressive persona and posture, often not just with the prisoners but with each other.”

And this is really the question Maull is asking us all to consider: What is it costing us as a nation to imprison such a huge portion of our community? What have we all lost? What might we gain by investing in effective rehabilitation that helps integrate these community members back into the whole and ensure that they do not go back to prison?

Through its work, the Prison Mindfulness Institute compels us to consider the diversity, resilience, compassion, and creativity that would come from accepting and supporting all those we have tried to disown and forget. All the while, for decades now, PMI has slowly and surely provided ways for those individuals to re-enter—and become true participants in—the communities from which they’ve been severed.


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1. Walmsley, R. (2011). World population list (9th ed.). Essex, UK: International Centre for Prison Studies.
2. Glaze, L. & Parks, E. (2012).Correctional populations in the United States, 2011.Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
3. Gornik, M. (2002). Moving from correctional program to correctional strategy: Using proven practices to change criminal behavior.Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections.

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